OCEAN CITY -- July Fourth brings out the boaters, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources reminds the users of "personal watercraft" -- Jet Skis -- to follow the rules for safe boating.
"They're fun, and that's part of the problem," says Gerry Bandelin, DNR's boating administrator. Indeed, adds James Peck, assistant secretary for the DNR, they're "one of the fastest growing areas in which you can have fun."
The number of personal watercraft has increased dramatically in the last three years, DNR officials say, and their popularity is mirrored in their accident rates: In 1991, there were three accidents involving personal watercraft; last year, there were 25-30 accidents in the Ocean City area.
"Knock on wood, we have not had anyone down here killed on a personal watercraft," adds Mr. Peck. There have been deaths in other places, he says.
Because the craft are small, and because the operator rides outside the vessel, rather than in it, some users can be forgetful of the rules, DNR officials say. (See box for a list of regulations.)
The craft are considered a 'Class A vessel" in Maryland, which was one of the first states to regulate them, DNR officials say, and they are subject to state and federal regulation.
Operators must be at least 14 years old, and are required to wear a life jacket while using the personal watercraft. If you were born after July 1, 1972, you must also have with you during operation of the craft a Maryland certificate of Boater Safety Education.
"In the last three years, there have been 1,700 complaints in the Ocean City area in reference to personal watercraft," says Cpl. Roger Bennett, an enforcement officer with DNR. Most of those involved negligent operation, particularly speeding in low-speed areas, he said.
Tourists in Ocean City can come from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York -- and may not be familiar with Maryland's boating laws, Corporal Bennett says. Part of the DNR's enforcement program involves boater education, he says.
Personal watercraft are classified as "Class A vessels" by the U.S. Coast Guard. For additional information about such vessels, the Coast Guard can be reached at (800) 368-5647.
Under Maryland law, operators of personal watercraft must be at least 14 years old. If born after July 1, 1972, they must also carry with them a certificate of Boater Safety Education. Other laws require that:
* Personal watercraft may not be operated between sundown and sunrise.
* Only personal watercraft designed by the manufacturer to tow skiers, aquaplanes and similar passengers may be used for that purpose. Such watercraft must have the capacity to carry three people, including the driver, a rear-facing observer and the skier.
* Personal watercraft may not be operated within 300 feet of people in the water or involved in surf fishing. They must not exceed a speed of 6 knots within 100 feet of another vessel, a pier, wharf or jetty.
For more information on getting a certificate, call the Maryland Natural Resources Police, Outdoor Education Unit, at (410) 974-2040. For additional information on Maryland law, call the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in Annapolis at (410) 974-2918.